Manual scavenging is a result of India‘s caste divide
Sagarika Ghose: The story of Prabhu and Guru Dhodiya and the terrible plight of manual scavengers. They do their job standing all day in human waste, standing in the unbearable extreme stench of night soil; they often have to stay dead drunk to do this job. They are sometimes unable to eat because of the human waste they are surrounded by. Many of them get asthma and the life expectancy is 30 years for many in their community. Our sister channel IBN Lokmat reported on manual scavengers in Pandharpur, Maharashtra leading the Maharashtra government to reinforce a ban. Actor Aamir Khan has also taken up the issue with the PM and on his show Satyamev Jayate. But despite the law, despite the ban, why is manual scavenging continuing.
Day after day working in the unbearable conditions and stench of human waste. Why should human beings, citizens of democratic India have to do this? Why is it that manual scavenging is increasing in India in spite of a 1993 law banning the practice?
Joining us Asim Sarode, he is a lawyer of High Court and Human Rights activist, Pradip More, convenor of the campaign against Manual Scavenging in Maharashtra, from Pune we have S Anand, Publisher of Navayana. And Paul Divakar, General Secretary of National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR). Thank you very much for joining us.
We will also get you the views of Mukul Wasnik, Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, to whom I spoke to earlier. When I spoke to Mukul Wasnik, I asked him why in spite of the law, in spite of the government efforts – why is manual scavenging still continuing, in fact increasing? Did it require an Aamir Khan to wake up the government on the issue of manual scavenging?
Mukul Wasnik: It didn’t require anybody to tell the government as to what needs to be done. Basically the government has been attending to this as a national priority recently after the data of census 2011 became available where it was pointed out that all most about 26 lakh insanity latrines exist. We thought it would be better for us to call collectors from various districts where the incidences are on the higher side. Similarly our present approach will be compared to what we did in 1993, when the law was enacted basically keeping the sanitation in mind. This time we are preparing a draft, rather a draft is already under circulation for inter-ministerial consultation, which will be base on human dignity. This we are attending to as a national priority. And by national priority, I mean, we take such issues on war footing. And when I say we take up these issues on war footing means that other things can wait but this cannot. People who would like to join in this campaign are most welcome and I am happy that Aamir Khan had taken up this in one of his programmes. But he was also telling me in one of the conversations that in his 47 years, 46 were such where he was totally not aware about this issue existing. But let many more people join this.
Sagarika Ghose: You are speaking about a new law on this but there is already a 1993 law banning the practice of manual scavenging and there has been no punishment. No one has been convicted for practicing manual scavenging. Will this new law be implemented and effective?
Mukul Wasnik: It will provide survey of manual scavengers, it will provide their rehabilitation and it will provide cognisable offences, non-bailable offences, with penalties which will be appropriate for a crime like this.
Sagarika Ghose: What about political will, activist say that there is no political will to act against manual scavenging?
Mukul Wasnik: See, Sagarika, I have just mentioned to you and I will again repeat that it is not about political will. We are addressing this issue with total seriousness. But I will just mention to you that these are the people who are living on the margins of society. They may be on the remotes corner of the village or in a remotes corner of an urban pocket; we have to reach out to them, not only the government but the society. As a nation we have to reach out to them. And with concerned efforts with all the concerned people, I think, the day will come sooner than later.
Sagarika Ghose: But the explain to me, why is it so difficult to eradicate this practice? Why is the government up against so many odds? Why is it so difficult to tackle it head on?
Mukul Wasnik: This is a very deep rooted, this is in the remotes corners of villages, and in the urban pockets. This is going on for generations, ages have witness this kind of thing and therefore to come out of this we will have to provide proper training to the manual scavengers. We will have to provide them with sufficient resources to come up with alternative self employment measures so that once they are out of this they can live their life with dignity. And that is the way we are trying to address this thing.
Sagarika Ghose: The minister there, Mukul Wasnik talking about what the government plans to do to eradicate manual scavenging. He was talking to me a little earlier. Let’s now turn it over to our panel. Asim Sarode, you are lawyer of the High Court, you are a human rights activist, do you find minister’s (Mukul Wasnik) comments convincing? Do you feel that the government will act, can act, can the law be implemented?
Asim Sarode: Sagarika, I beg to differ from the minister because actually what he is saying is very misleading. The act is prevailing since 1993, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. But ask the minister to show one punishment which happened using this law. This law is already cognisable, then why are they making a new law? What is the need of the new law? I am sensing suspicion on the presentation of the new law on this issue. Because they are trying to make hazardous manual cleaning of safety tanks and latrines. So why are they adding this hazardous thing in the definition, because they want to escape from the responsibility that this is not hazardous and this is hazardous. See manual scavenging is itself hazardous. It is degrading, it is inhuman and it is anti-human, so they should completely ban rather then creating spaces to escape from the responsibilities. He have filed a case in December 2011, and three hearings took place in High Court but no government official was present. This is there sense of responsibility.
Sagarika Ghose: They have completely insensitive approach. Let me get in Mr Pradip More as well, Pradip More do you agree with those comments that are being made. That in fact government is not serious, there has not been a single conviction for anyone who is employing manual scavenger.
Pradip More: Yes, we need to see all these facts that in spite of this act and also before this act came he had various committees, and commissions were appointed to see this inhuman practice in India. Like Barkway Commission, we have Lord Committee, we had Malkana Committee. Many committees had given so many recommendations to the government but government was insensitive to see all this. And of course there are many charges that the workers are doing all this. The authorities are saying them to do this but they are doing this. All these practises are with the sense of untouchability…
Sagarika Ghose: It is because of untouchability because of social discrimination. Let me put to Paul Divakar, you know, the shocking illustration that we have shown that you have to stay drunk to do that all day. Day after day you are standing neck deep in human waste, the most degrading practice. Now is cast prejudice the reason why there is so much apathy?
Paul Divakar: It is definitely trans based discrimination, it is just the panicle at the end. The worst form of discrimination is forcing people who are meant… as you know cast is meant for pollution and think to do with death, anything to do with unclean, these are the things which are thrust upon untouchables. And one think, we need to pull up the government is leave the society alone for a while. What is the government doing specially with the Railways? Today you have the entire track, I think, lakh of kilometres, and Railways has not done a single think today to have a sensible system of sanitation. And you have all the tracks right along (*) shit all along the way. So make that first the national priority and say from 2012-2013 you are going to fix the system. Every Railways in the world, Railways has managed this. Why is it that Indian government which is so developed is not able to have a system. So some where it is not just the society. There is a will that needs to be harnessed and government can’t tolerate this kind of cast based discrimination.
Sagarika Ghose: It’s cast based discrimination which is leading to the apathy. You were telling me about the sewer workers who are also a part of sub-cast scavengers. And you were saying that they are forced to do it. It is assumed that there cast is as such that they have to go down the sewer.
S Anand: Sagarika the larger thing is, whether we raise it on this panel or Aamir Khan talks about it, the crux of the issue is that it is a part of a larger ideological apparatus, which sustains the entire cast system. It is about the cast occupation nexus in society. So it is no surprise that due to urbanisation you have these sewer lines in Delhi, let’s talk abut Delhi. 5300 kilometres of sewer line, 9 inch diameter pipes that go down you bathroom. You put a cleaning acid, what every you are putting. People flush down sanitary pads, to condoms and even construction rubble goes to these sewer lines. Why do we do that, because these people we die… there is an estimate, which I arrived when I was doing a story for Tehelka about four years again, and it was a conservative estimate arrived with Lela Vesaria, person who is a demography expert, and she and I arrived at this figure of 22,327 deaths per year all over India. In Bombay alone according to an RTI 3,495 deaths in just 24 wards in just once city. Now if you compare it with Army people who died in Kashmir from 1990 to 2007, 5,100.
So there are sacrificing their life but they are not wearing the flag so nobody bothers. Media gets very exited when a young boy goes down the little pipe, I mean, he has to be rescued. The Army is called, you have shows. But these are workers we don’t see them. When Aarushi murder case happened, they sent two workers down the sewer to find the murder weapon. Nobody discussed that in the media. What is the middle class which is watching Aamir Khan’s show doing?
Sagarika Ghose: These are invisible people. Asim Sarode, they are invisible workers, they are invisible to us. We don’t know that they are going down the sewer everyday. They are standing neck deep in night soil everyday. They are inhaling this terrible stench everyday. And yet they don’t have rights because the society believes that is their job, they are by birth cleaners of night soil.
Asim Sarode: They are also invisible in urban areas. In rural areas they are there, in urban areas they are they; they are there on the railway tracks. So political will is absent to see them and to recognise their existence. It is not the issue of manual scavenging; it is the issue of cast based violation. It is the issue of health rights of the people who are working in unorganised sector. It is also issue of how and why they are not getting medical aid, they are not getting shelter. So what is think is if Mr Mukul Wasnik is coming up with a new bill, then the people should demand and they (Government) should also consider…there should be no legislation with out people’s consideration. People should be consulted, their opinion should be gathered and only then new bill should be presented in Parliament. Otherwise, as I pointed previously, if they insert these words like hazardous and create space to escape from responsibility that should not be done.
Sagarika Ghose: You heard Mukul Wasnik there, telling us about his solutions, that he wants to provide proper condition, provide alternative livelihood, do a survey, so do you think these solution will work or do you think much more drastic punishment is the answer?
Paul Divakar: First I feel what we can, what the government can in its own hand, they must begin to implement. There is money that is being allocated, that money is not being spent. Now the question is why the money that has been allocated from the relief and rehabilitation, elimination of the manual scavenging for the last five years, why has it not been spent ferociously in a way that you can eliminate it. Then there are wider issues where you have education, you have special component plan, which is suppose to allocated certain proportion of money… today you don’t have a legislation to implement it. Now why is it… at least, Sagarika, there are 37510 crore that are allocated every year for the development of schedule cast and schedule tribes, including some of the people we have seen on the TV. If this money would have gone for their relief, rehabilitation, education, civic amenity today we would have not these scenes.
Sagarika Ghose: But as Guru (manual scavenger) was saying he has no other option. He said this is the option he had from last four generations and his family has been doing this therefore this is what I’m going to be doing.
Paul Divakar: That is because there is a force on the people and they are forced to some of these jobs. If they refuse there is violence, they are not given job anywhere else. So on one hand there is a mind set which forces them to do this job and on the other hand the wider community says that you are not fit for any other employment. There are lawyers, advocates who do this job in the evening because they are not able to sustain themselves.
Sagarika Ghose: Forced to do the job because born into a particular community. The reform measure of Mukul Wasnik didn’t convenience you.
S Anand: Not at all because reform is an agenda which has a huge Gandhian kind of aura around it. Ambedkar was for annihilation of cast.
Sagarika Ghose: So the reality is that no Brahman will go down the sewer.
S Anand: No Brahman will ever go down the sewer. Whatever you do, even you pay them Rs 1 lakh a month as a salary. You are not going to see reform. Reform is the problematic language which the state has been speaking. Especially because of this triangle hold which I call Gandhian piety. Here is a man whose photo still adorns National Commission for Safai Karamcharis’s office and he says this, you know, you have to really see this… because that is the ideology that inflects the policy on manual scavenging.
Sagarika Ghose: It is a kind of middle class… Gandhian ideology…
S Anand: Ideology which says an ideal banghi should be able to examine night soil and tell you what is the quality of your urine and tell whether it has go germs in it. And this was at a time when Ambedkar was talking about annihilation of cast. So unless you delink occupation and case…
Sagarika Ghose: You have to delink occupation and cast. As Anand is saying that no Brahman will ever go down a sewer and stand neck deep in night soil. That is a very shocking indictment of the democratic rights of manual scavengers. No person should be a manual scavengers, we must have awareness and must pressurise government to have strict punishment for those employ manual scavenging. Thank you very much indeed, Asim Sarode, Paul Divakar, S Anand. This is because of caste discrimination that manual scavenging is continuing.